Stress and Wonder

Lonely ManWhen I arrived in the small city in southern India, I had high hopes for a relaxed sabbatical.  My personal stress was high.  I wanted one full year of rest so I could decide whether to continue in the addiction counseling profession.  I admit that moving to India to relieve stress was a little extreme, but I felt my situation demanded a bold move and this was it.

India is usually a difficult place to get things done.  But to my surprise everything came together quickly.  I rented an apartment and bought furniture, a stove, refrigerator and water dispenser.  I had my laptop computer and internet hook-up.  There was a public pool nearby, a health club for working out and even a basketball court.  I purchased a cell phone for local use.  Three boxes of my books sent from the U.S. arrived right on time.  My stress reduction sabbatical in India was working out great so far.

Despite my need to avoid work tension, I couldn’t help myself from investigating the local facilities for drug and alcohol treatment.  How did they do things here in India?  In a chance encounter I met the powerful chief administrator for a large western-style hospital, Mr. Peter.

Typical of the friendly and generous spirit in India, Mr. Peter invited me to tour the hospital and meet his “top staff.”  I figured I’d be escorted from office to office, shaking hands with influential medical officials.  I recall feeling like a big shot: self-satisfied with how well I was in control of my new challenges in this foreign land.

The morning of our scheduled appointment arrived.  As I boarded a rickshaw for the ten minute ride to the hospital, my new cell phone rang.  “Jeddy!”  It was Mr. Peter.  “Jeddy, the topic we’d like you to speak on today is stress reduction.”

“What?  Speak?  I don’t understand, Mr. Peter.”

“Yes, your topic for our staff training today is stress reduction.  Speak for as long as you like.  Good-bye!”  And he was gone with a click.

Minutes later I found myself standing at the front of a large conference room packed with doctors, nurses and hospital administrators.  Dazed but trying to gather myself, I whispered to a nearby assistant, “Does everyone here speak English?”  “About half,” was his reply.  This did not diminish my stress.

I was introduced as “a top addictionologist from America.”  There was enthusiastic applause.  A young nurse presented me with a bouquet of flowers.  Every single person was smiling.  I was still fumbling in my mind about what I was going to say.  I couldn’t have known it at the time, but this was the first of many encounters that year where I was spontaneously placed before a sea of Indian faces and expected to say something interesting.

One thing I learned from that experience: stress reduction is a popular topic, worldwide.  In the United States and everywhere else I visited, almost everyone believes they have too much stress.  We think a lot about what stresses us and we think a lot about how to rid ourselves of what stresses us.  Despite all that thinking, human beings remain a stressed-out race.

What to do?  Does facing stress effectively mean reducing or avoiding the unpleasant things that vex us?  Is getting rid of unwanted stress as easy as moving to a new place?  The answers may depend on whether we believe the stress has an interior or exterior origin.

Epictetus, the first century philosopher, was a practical man who was very concerned with stress reduction.  According to Epictetus, freedom from stress comes from a realistic acceptance of our natural limits.  As soon as we harbor anxiety, wishing to change an unpleasant situation that is out of our control, we are unfree, acting slavishly.  Epictetus asserts that the source of all stress is interior, and therefore we have a great measure of control over our experience of stress.

When we allow ourselves to dwell with uncertainty, even embrace it, we transform stress into wonder.  And a sense of wonder may reveal the fascination and beauty in life.  So much felt stress is unnecessary and can be restored to its rightful place in our hearts and minds as wonder.

My friend Epictetus, and international travel, taught me, not about stress reduction, but about stress transformation.  Living in unfamiliar cultures is a wild ride, an adventure that shouldn’t be, and truly can’t be, completely controlled.  When I chose to accept unforeseen changes and inconveniences as wondrous adventures, my stress level went way down.  Much stress in life can be viewed the same way.  To not do so and remain stressed, Epictetus says, is nothing but a failure of the imagination.

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